Mette Norling Schmidt legt het Deense asielsysteem, de rol van het Rode Kruis daarbinnen en de diverse functies van de asielcentra uit.

Mette Norling Schmidt
Senior adviseur van het Deense Rode Kruis op het gebied van asiel
26 februari 2016

Role of the Red Cross

‘There are not that many countries where the Red Cross is the operator of the asylum centres. We have been since 1984 when we started the first asylum centre in Denmark for 50 Iranians who needed care immediately and temporarily. But 32 years later, we still operate centres.

For the first approximately 20 years the Red Cross was the sole operator of asylum centres. Then the government tried to encourage municipalities to run centres as well. But running a centre is not something you do for profit, and few municipalities were interested until few years ago. Now the Red Cross has about 30 centres of 70 in total, the others are operated by municipalities.

The Red Cross centres are funded by the government. We are on an annual contract with the immigration services and are running the centres for the government. It is part of the mandate and auxiliary role of the Red Cross to provide services for, and in close dialogue with, the government. But there is always discussion on what we should or shouldn’t do, what the limit is, whether we could risk being too linked to the authorities. We need to secure our neutrality, impartiality and our seven principles, and at the same time operate the centres under the authorities.

Therefore, in most countries the centres are operated by the authorities and the Red Cross only provides some services. But whenever we see a humanitarian need for protection and assistance to vulnerable people, the Red Cross will be there. That is also the main objective for running the asylum centres. To provide a safe daily life for asylum seekers in a vulnerable position.

Added value

We do believe that the Red Cross has an added value at the asylum centres. We run special care centres for people who are unusually traumatized or in need of special physical or mental care. So anyone with special needs is put in a Red Cross centre. We also run the first reception centres and the centre for single women.

For many years we also used to run all the centres for unaccompanied minors, but now some municipalities also have a special centre for unaccompanied minors. What we hear from asylum seekers is that they feel more secure in centres when they see the Red Cross on the flags and buildings. We have our Red Cross principles and we never seem to be mixed up with the authorities.

There is not a lot of tension between the government and the Red Cross. Over the years, despite which government we have had, we have kept to our principles and tried to be neutral in every respect. We have our annual negotiations about the contract and there are weekly meetings with the ministry, so there is a continuing dialogue.

Although our main task is running these centres, we do a lot of humanitarian advocacy directed at politicians as well. We raise issues whenever we have special concerns. We do believe it is a big advantage that we, as the Red Cross, are running asylum centres. We are there, see everything first hand.

In many countries the Red Cross or other NGO’s will only provide services, which can be a disadvantage when doing advocacy work. You only get second hand information, instead of dealing with issues directly. The government knows we see everything first hand here and listens to us. They know no one knows better than we do and that we only have humanitarian concerns, not political.'

Recognition in Denmark

‘If you apply for asylum, you will be granted  residence because you are either recognized as a convention refugee or if you cannot be send back (principle of non-refoulement). Our last government added a third paragraph meant to deal with the current refugees. The paragraph was added to protect people fleeing from war. This paragraph does have bigger restrictions on family reunification and only grants temporary residence.

Syrians are from conflict areas, but often cannot prove that they are personally persecuted and so it is more difficult to grant them asylum. Although the paragraph actually broadens the chance for asylum, the rumour along the migration route was that Denmark was not allowing anyone to have their family over, so people did not want to be here. However, only about one thousand people were granted asylum based on this paragraph. Most Syrians are still being granted asylum by the convention refugee status.

 We don’t know why refugees prefer Sweden over Denmark. The first thing our government did when the refugees started to come, was to have ads in Lebanese newspapers saying refugees shouldn’t come to Denmark because of all of our laws on family reunification etc.

The refugees often didn’t actually read the ads themselves, only heard about it from others. Also people want to go where family is and in Sweden there are more Syrians than in Denmark where there are almost none. We were surprised to see Denmark is a transit country, not a destination. Still, 20.000 asylum seekers is the biggest number we have ever seen.

The recognition rate has also increased. Last year it was about 85% while only a few years back it was 40-50%. And of the Syrians almost 99,99% are granted asylum. A new tendency at the moment is people withdrawing their application, wanting to return to their country of origin. Even Syrians want to go back. They are too worried about their families, the waiting time is too stressful and too long and they'd rather go back.

When Syrians or Iranians go back, it is mostly not those who are rejected, but those who regret being here. Last year the average procedure period was 4-6 months. Syrians actually go through very quick procedures, for others it can still take some years.’

Allocation during procedure

‘When refugees first arrive in Denmark, they go to this first reception centre in Nordsjælland. This is where registration takes place, they have their first interview with the police, documents are checked and they undergo a health screening. From there they are allocated to different asylum centres all over the country.

 Immigration services decide who goes to a Red Cross or municipality centre, except for the special care centre, where we are also involved in the decision-making. Most people live within the asylum centres during the whole procedure. A few years ago it was an option for asylum seekers to live in allocated apartments or with relatives outside the centres, or even have their own apartment if they could pay for it. But the new government decided to stop this.

We disagreed with this decision. For most people it is a good idea to live outside the centres, start integration and feel at home. The government says that it is not sure if the asylum seekers will stay and integration will be necessary, so they don’t want to spend resources on integration. It mostly affects families, because it created a home for the children, they could go to local schools and have as much as possible a normal life.

It is a main objective of the Red Cross to provide what we call a safe, meaningful and dignified daily life for asylum seekers which we see as being able to have as much a normal daily life as possible. Where you get up in the morning and do something with your day which is meaningful to you. This is obviously very difficult when you live in a centre that resembles an institution.

Therefore living outside of the centres, maintaining your life with all the resources you have as a grown-up, taking care of your family, is good for everyone and for any future integration or even reintegration if they go back to their country of origin.‘

Allocation after permit

When someone receives a residence permit, he or she is allocated a home. For the first three years, which is the integration period, they have to live within the municipality that they were allocated to. But there can be some exceptions to that when they find a job.

The immigration services also allocate people with a residence permit, but we do try to influence them if people have family or work somewhere. They base it on how many residents a municipality has and how many people with a residence permit the municipality already has. Then a percentage of people with a residence permit is allocated.

We now see municipalities saying they want more people allocated to them. Unfortunately we also see the opposite. Every time we open up a new centre there is resistance in the beginning from the local authorities, the local populations. We have a lot of local dialogues and hearings and information meetings.

It's all from small towns, people are concerned how it will influence the town. Asylum centres are often placed in more remote places, not in the cities and these areas have high unemployment rates. Local governments usually don’t want centres, but when they have them, they want to keep them.

Asylum centres create jobs and increase money spending in the communities. The money asylum seekers receive from the government is spend on groceries from the local store. The municipalities try to engage in this field now, also because when an asylum seeker is granted asylum, they will become the responsibility of the municipality.

Services at the centres

'Both the municipality and the Red Cross centres offer more or less the same basic services and support because they operate under the same law. For children, this is kindergarten, school, healthcare. Basically what all Danish children are being provided with, is also being provided at all centres. For adults, they have access to occupational training, educational assistance, again healthcare, social support and psychologists.

Children in the asylum centre mostly go to a kindergarten or school at the centres. They can also go to local kindergartens or schools based on individual assessment of the child. We try to have as many children as possible at schools outside of the centres.

In a municipality in Jutland they changed it around, the local kindergarten is placed in the asylum centre. Local children go to school at the centre, which has worked really well. These kind of solutions is what we like to see, although we realise it is difficult with bigger asylum centres.

 The health clinics are on the centre grounds, so people visit them often. Asylum seekers often think they need medical care for something which is a minor or non-medical issue, headaches, sleeping problems. Often it is the general situation of being an asylum seeker which causes their health issues, the distress, the uncertainty about their future, the environment.

We try to help with social support, go for walks, talk about their problems, do normal things which people tend to forget when they are an asylum seeker. Things they maybe did in their country of origin. We try to focus on preventive care and self-help, so they won’t need medication. We also know that staying in an asylum centre for too long can be traumatizing in itself.

What we do not provide in any of the centres is religious services. We had a lot of discussions about having special prayer rooms for different religions. But we decided to have a silent room, which can be used by anyone of any religion. We do refer asylum seekers to churches and mosques outside the centres when they want.


‘There are tensions within the asylum centres. Sometimes it is group related, mostly it is one person acting out. We see often that when an asylum seeker receives a rejection to his application or other bad news, that the destress of the whole situation is released. This causes a lot of reactions and tension with other asylum seekers.

We haven’t seen an escalation in the last months, even with the increased pressure on the system. It is logical that there is a lot of tension because there are a lot of people in a stressful situation living together in a restricted area, regardless of group or nationality.

Whether or not there is a limit to the amount of asylum seekers we can take in has been a big discussion. There will have to be some sort of limit. We cannot accept a million refugees and still provide the same quality of services. If we want to want to provide the same assistance to everyone in need, we will need more finances.

With more resources, more people, more finances, there will be no problem and no limit. Unfortunately that is a dream scenario and we have to look at reality as well, which means that there is a certain limit.

We also think that the number of undocumented migrants has increased. Last year an estimate of 90.000 crossed the border into Denmark, but only 20.000 applied for asylum. So the rest is somewhere we don’t know, maybe they went to Sweden or back to Germany, maybe they are still in Denmark. We do focus more and more on these undocumented migrants, because the numbers don’t match up.

One last concern is special groups. We cooperate with LGBT organisations on the issues coming up with transsexuals coming to Denmark, what we should do with them. Are they to be in a women centre, even if the women don't want to?

There also was a time last year when a lot of people were converting to Christianity and felt harassed at the centres. People were advocating for centres for people who had converted to a different religion. I think all objections and interests clash in this area. We try to keep to our seven principles and only take humanitarian concerns in our consideration.’

Gesprek gevoerd op vrijdag 26 februari 2016.
Foto: Werry Crone